Related post: ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ isn’t really about suicide
The following contains spoilers about the book/Netflix series
Weeks after I finished the series, I still can’t let Thirteen Reasons Why go. I’m still seeing Facebook posts from people who are a bit late to the party, asking if it’s worth watching. Still reading the same responses from people who wrote as if they had never seen it, or just went straight to the gritty parts and watched without context.
I don’t particularly love the book, and the side plots added to the TV series (no doubt to stretch it out for thirteen episodes, and now a whole second season when there isn’t even a second book, good grief) had me shaking my head multiple times. But I started to feel a little defensive.
Then, Michelle Carter was found guilty of manslaughter by a judge. She was charged with driving her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to kill himself, via thousands of “encouraging” text messages. Carter didn’t personally lock the doors and trap Roy in his car while the vehicle filled with toxic fumes, but she still faces twenty years in prison. Reading about this case made my brain start churning again.
A popular criticism of TRW is that no one can ever be held responsible for a suicide, except the person killing himself or herself; there are never any “reasons” except some form of mental illness.
The lines between ethical and legal responsibility are indeed blurry. But I whole-heartedly believe that circumstances, and other people, can play pivotal roles in a suicide. Why else are LGBT teens at greater risk of suicide than their peers? Their deaths are attributed to ongoing harassment, bullying, assault, and rejection from their families.
Many suicidal people don’t want to die, per se; they just want the pain to stop.
For the record, I’ve been on both sides of suicide: I’ve been the one seriously considering ending my life, and one of the many left behind, wondering what more I could have done (or what didn’t I do?). Like Hannah Baker in the story, the worst of my suicidal thoughts happened in the aftermath of sexual assault. Also like Hannah Baker, people I should have trusted for help told me to “put it behind me.” The worst was being told that I “should have known better than to put myself in that position.”
Yeah, you fucking bet that I was suicidal after that.
To be sure, suicide stories often share a common thread, but they can also be just as unique as people are. Since Thirteen Reasons Why was released, I have noticed a drastic increase in Oppression Olympics: the “my story is the only true story” response. I encountered this with other rape survivors, who noted my lack of visible bruises or black eyes, and told me what I’d experienced wasn’t the “real thing” somehow. Likewise, a teenage girl who commits suicide because some of her peers were big ol’ meanies to her can’t possibly have genuine depression, despair, and reasons to give up hope. Why? Because she’s young? Because her experiences are “typical”? Because you experienced something similar, but you turned out okay?
I am truly astonished by the lack of emphasis that reviews of this show, even ones written by self-proclaimed school counselors or psychology experts, place on this crucial fact: HANNAH BAKER WAS RAPED. She also witnessed the rape of a friend. They were, in fact, raped by the same person, and within a few weeks of each other. This was after Hannah was already in a vulnerable place: she was publicly humiliated by a revealing photo, rejected (oh, and slapped) by her best friend, and taken advantage of in other small but significant ways, the effects of which built up over time. And her suicide is a surprise?
I’m not sure if the flippant treatment of Hannah’s demons is due to her age (“What teenager isn’t emo all the time?”) or a misunderstanding that PTSD isn’t just for war veterans. Whatever it is, part of the blame goes to Jay Asher, the author of the book the series is based on, for tacking on a rape scene in the last week of Hannah’s life. We can keep debating about whether rejection from peers is a “worthy” enough reason to take your life, but rape? Come on now. That one event should have ended the debates in their tracks.
Both the body and the brain change in response to trauma, and when a survivor isn’t taken seriously by adults whose job is to help her, should we be surprised that in the end, she decides slitting her wrists in the bathtub is her best option?
Maybe the school counselors, the child psychologists, and fellow parents who watched the show can’t bring themselves to admit that sometimes they miss things. They are human, after all. But to pretend that adults always take teenagers seriously, and that they should never be afraid to ask for help, is disingenuous. It serves nobody well to pretend this doesn’t happen, which makes TRW a cautionary tale, if nothing else.
The bottom line is that it’s impossible to know for sure what is going on in a suicidal person’s head, even if they do leave a note – or a shoebox of cassette tapes, as it were. But we can all agree that suicide is a tragedy. And one person’s tragedy may be your idea of a walk in the park – but if it didn’t happen to you, then you don’t get to decide how it affects somebody else.
Like this post? Check out A Stunning Accusation, available on Amazon.